Saturday, April 21, 2018

Can Colonels Complain? Canadian Civil-Military Relations at Night

Last night, a kerfuffle broke out in Canadian civil-military relations.  I would not call it a crisis, but I saw a military officer post something and then two members of the opposition parties hit back at him for daring to tweet about how the military is covered.  I may be biased because the essence of the message is something that I have argued much here.  Let's go to the videotape series of tweets:

Janzen is asking the media to cover the military better, not less.  He is asking them to ask critical questions, not fluff questions nor is he flinging distraction sauce.

Bezan, the Defence Critic for the Conservatives, first asks a non-sequitor (and that is being kind) as Janzen is literally asking for the media to ask the right questions with the implicit commitment that the military would answer these better questions.  Bezan then says Janzen is arrogant because, um, Janzen is asking folks to ask smarter questions.  Is that arrogance?  Since I have been making the same request, perhaps I am the wrong person to judge (and, yes, I have been told I am arrogant).  The third sentence suggests that Bezan didn't read Janzen's tweet, since Janzen is not questioning how Trudeau is deploying the CAF, but saying that they should be asking questions that might lead to a more productive conversation.

Janzen then explains his stance further since twitter is a problematic media for nuance (yeah, Phil, yeah).  A key part of his answer is that the military is not to criticize government policy or be partisan, and, indeed, the combat/non-combat thing is something both Conservatives and Liberals have adopted when in government.  He then goes on to assert "Canada's civil-military relationship allow for military members to respectfully engage with Canadians....."  Indeed.

I then got into it, as this has been a pet peeve of mine.  I indicated that it is fair to ponder if Parliament is doing its job right, which is my assertion about us as a country, not what Janzen was doing, but, well, I attracted the ire of another MP because of that:

Note that O'Toole is focusing mostly on Liberal policy, not on the substance of what Janzen was arguing.  Sure, it would be inappropriate for a military officer in Canada to criticize the government or the opposition or existing policy, but that is not what Janzen is doing.  He is merely asking that the media ask better questions.  O'Toole falsely compares the India/NSA mess with a guy merely asking for the debate to be better.  I am usually in favor of comparing apples and oranges, but when one does so, please be aware that one thing is an apple and the other an orange.  Daniel Jean, the NSA, was trying to address and mitigate a government controversy.  Janzen is asking for the media to cover the military better.  Not the same thing at all.

Of course, one could infer that Janzen is saying that the media is following the distraction sauce being flung by the politicians, so it may indirectly be criticism of the politicians.

This entire discussion raises a few questions that need to be considered:
  1. should members of the Canadian Armed Forces tweet?
  2. if so, can they tweet about the public discourse about their work?
  3. can individuals who have day jobs tweet at night when they are not at work and do so as private citizens or must their day job affiliation dominate their social media engagement?
  4. O'Toole's last tweet suggests that only Ministers or other politicians can engage in a discussion of these issues.  Is that true? That the CAF must remain entirely silent? Is that good for Canadian civil-military relations?
  5. Why are members of the opposition so defensive about a tweet that asks for a more nuanced discussion of defence policy?
Here are my answers to these questions:
  1. Sure, CAF folks should be allowed to tweet both in their private lives and in their positions in the military.  We probably ought to expect the Director of Strategic Communications to, um, strategically communicate.
  2. It probably depends.  I think providing the journalists with better questions is fair game.  Had the tweet been asking them not to cover the military or to send them on a wild goose chase, then no.  So, the content of the tweet matters, doesn't it?
  3. This is the question du jour given the Fresno State controversy: can individuals be held responsible in their day jobs for what they do on social media from home in non-working hours?  Obviously, a lot more leeway for the cranky prof than for a member of the armed forces.  But no leeway?  
  4. O'Toole's notion that the only people who should engage in these issues are Ministers is problematic.  Having a very distant military, which can't communicate with the public, is a bad idea.  My research on Japan, a very extreme example, suggests that being not seen and not heard is not good for oversight and is not good for civil-military relations.  One of the things that DND heard during the Defence Policy Review process is that the CAF needs to engage the public more.  
  5. Alas, a problem built into the Canadian political system, due to the way question period works here, is that parliamentarians prefer to have short, simple and often problematic ways to talk about things rather than having substantive debates about the issues.  I don't blame Bezan and O'Toole that much, since the Liberals played this game while in opposition.  I wish we could elevate the discourse, which is precisely what Janzen was asking for.  Obviously, the politicians don't want an elevated discourse.  Perhaps they don't have the staff or the time or, dare I say it, the incentives, to engage in a more serious conversation.
Now, note, I can be critical of the politicians because I am not a member of the CAF.  Instead, it is definitely part of my job as a professor who teaches and studies civil-military relations.  The current project that takes me to South Korea in a week is asking about the role of legislators in civil-military relations, and, yes, did start with a surprise about how little Canadian parliamentarians knew about what the military was doing in Afghanistan.  What I have learned thus far is that ignorance may be seen as bliss, so the project considers whether this is a Canada thing, a Westminister thing or a democracy thing.  So far, the answers seem to be yes, no, and sort of.

Last night's twitter conversation involving a colonel, two members of parliament and a random professor indicate that the government's tax dollars are being well spent--there is much confusion about Canadian civil-military relations including the role of parliamentarians--and we (Dave, Phil and I) are determined to figure it out by engaging in systematic and extensive comparative analysis. 

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